O. P. Sharma
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.
(spirituial 'vendatic' viewpoint)
The Koran is very much in the news these days, but for the wrong reasons. Apart from the initial Newsweek report (later retracted), Brigadier General Jay Hood had confirmed last week that the holy book was 'mishandled' in Guantanamo Bay prison camp 'at least five times.' The initial disclosure had, predictably, provoked violent reaction in the Islamic world in which a number of innocent lives were lost in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Which calls for some serious reflection on our part on the value and utility of holy books, particularly in these troubled times when there is more of religiosity than religion, when people give more importance to the letter (literally the printed or written word) than to the essential spirit of one's faith, which, one expects, should teach them love, tolerance and compassion toward all.
Vedanta1, the ancient religio-philosophical system of India, which is multi-tiered in its approach to Reality, urges men to see holy books as well as religion in their proper perspective (as being merely instrumental in the achievement of the highest state of illumination). Consequently, according to the proponents of the system, all sacred texts, over which people quarrel so much, are meant for human beings, for their enlightenment and edification, and not human beings for sacred texts! Also, it is patently wrong to believe that one's own faith is the 'only true one' and those of all others are false for 'man is travelling not from complete error to truth, but from lower truth to higher truth'--- the highest being that which does not deny but subsumes, or fulfils, all faiths. Likewise it is wrong to believe that one's own holy texts are the only holy ones in the world whereas those of others simply don't count, even as other religions and their followers don't matter.
The chief exponent of Vedanta in the modern times, Swami Vivekananda, the Prophet of New India, who forcefully propounded 'more than mere tolerance' and Universal Religion at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, pointed out, "It is very good to be born in church [or a temple, a mosque, a synagogue, etc.], but very bad to die there." One must spiritually grow up and become a truly universal human being---a jivanmukta, that is, 'a free-while-one-is-alive person' (and this not just in the political sense!)
Further, explaining the essentials of religion in memorable terms, the Swami affirmed: "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy--- by one, or more, or all of these--- and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details."
In a lecture that he delivered in San Francisco in 1900, which was entitled, ' Is Vedanta the Future Religion?', the Prophet of New India would appear to have anticipated the unfortunate consequences of total dependence on holy texts as the last word in spirituality, of the failure of the adherents of various faiths to rise above them and attain self-realisation. (Holy books, it may be said, are desecrated in more than one way--- by their opponents who burn or pour filth on them, and by their 'worshippers' who do not follow their noble teachings but go and kill or injure innocent people out of vengeance!).
Perhaps, the Vedas,2 among the sacred books of the world, are unique in that they counsel the faithful to go beyond them--- from mere Vedic chanting and rites and rituals to the ultimate realisation of the final Truth. This last-mentioned Vedantic culmination automatically results in the 'experience of oneness with the entire creation.' Such a realised soul undoubtedly becomes, to quote the Bhagavad-Gita, a well-wisher of all, a promoter of the good of all (sarva bhutehiteh ratah:). No books, howsoever sacred, can approach the 'spiritual majesty' of him who sees the universal Self in all and all in the Self; who participates in the joys and sorrows of others as though they were his own. He verily becomes a living embodiment of the highest teachings of the texts which then become redundant for him.
The august mentor of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who had successfully practised many leading faiths and who, though a great respecter of all holy books, invariably impressed upon his devotees that it is more important to put into practice their noble and lofty teachings than just venerate or worship them. Resorting to two homely examples to drive home his point, he said: "A person received a letter from his home asking him to buy and bring certain things along with him. Now what does he do? He simply sets about the job of purchasing the required items and forgets all about the missive--or, at least, he doesn't hug it all the time. Likewise, the shastra (holy books) merely indicate what one must do, or avoid doing--'speak the truth, be honest, love and serve all in a selfless spirit, remember God and recite His name and glories, be compassionate,' etc. The important thing is to live these lofty dictates, not just pay lip-service to them."
Another example that the Sage gives is, "In the astrology-related almanac, the Panchang, the likely dates when it will rain are given. But if you squeeze the pages of that publication, not a drop of water will fall from them. So also, the holy books [such as are worth the name and do not incite people to hatred, violence, or intolerance of others] need to be honoured more in the observance of their teachings than just in their ideal preservation, mechanical recitation, or idolizing."
Swami Vivekananda, the Prophet of New India, as Romain Rolland hailed him, presents the basic teachings of Vedanta in the following observations that he made in the course of his aforementioned lecture in San Francisco: "Vedanta teaches the God that is in everyone, has become everyone and everything.... The kingdom of heaven went from Vedanta hundreds of years ago. It is concerned only with spirituality.... God is spirit and He should be worshipped in spirit and in truth.... These are what the system has not to give. No book. No man to be singled out from the rest of mankind--- 'You are worms, and we are the Lord God!' ...none of that. If you are the Lord God, I also am the Lord God. So Vedanta knows no sin. There are mistakes but no sin; and in the long run everything is going to be all right.... No God to be afraid of. He is the one being of whom we shall never be afraid, because He is our own Self.... No book, no person, no Personal God. All these must go. Again, the senses must go. We cannot be bound to the senses. At present we are tied down---like persons dying of cold in the glaciers. They feel such a strong desire to sleep, and when their friends try to wake them, warning them of death, they say, 'Let me die, I want to sleep.' We all cling to the little things of the senses, even if we are ruined thereby; we forget there are much greater things.... What does Vedanta teach us? In the first place, it teaches that you need not even go out of yourself to know the truth. All the past and all the future are here in the present.... All is here right now. One moment in infinite time is quite as complete and all-inclusive as every other moment.... Therefore the Vedanta formulates, not a universal brotherhood, but universal oneness. I am the same as any other man, as any other animal--- good, bad, anything. It is one body, one mind, one soul throughout. Spirit never dies. There is no death anywhere, not even for the body. Not even the mind dies. How can even the body die? One leaf may fall--- does the tree die? The universe is my body. See how it continues. All minds are mine. With all feet I walk. Through all mouths I speak. In every body I reside."
Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti say the Vedas. That is, the One Truth is called by different names by various learned men. So, as we know, some call It Allah, others Bhagwan, yet others God, etc. Hence, the implication is that the wise will never quarrel over these different approaches to the same ultimate Reality. It is, therefore, in a way, the earliest statement of religious pluralism, inculcating tolerance. The selfsame sacred books also induce people to ultimately see and realise the spiritual unity informing the plethora of diversity in the universe, including the diversity of faiths. This, they confess, can only be done on an experiential, not just academic, level, transcending the 'lower' Vedic teachings themselves, namely, those not pertaining to the final indescribable Truth, beyond name and form. Hence, for the realised souls, say these holy books, 'the Vedas become inconsequential---vedoveda bhavati.